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Perception in Transitional Place: Write-up

My final installation is a transient work concerned primarily with transitional place and the perception of sound and space. Sound is used to call attention to sites of interest and activate the awareness of passers-by, making their perception of sound and place a conscious act.1 The sites in which this particular work is installed share a common factor, in that they are “transitional environments”2 through which people must pass to reach a target destination: alleyways, tunnels, and so on.

When introduced to sound art I was immediately taken by the conceptual shift from “time (le temps) to duration (le durée)”3 that it presents, coupled with the postmodern idea of the individual’s experience over the artist’s ideal, particularly in relation to space. I became enamoured with Max Neuhaus’ move from the concert hall to “a more public realm in which the experience of sound might surprise perception”4.  The concept for this installation grew from my research into how Neuhaus became disenchanted with his music being heard primarily by a particular class in the concert hall 5, and instead went about “seeking the uninitiated, in the time of their movements, within the space of the everyday,”6: “The impetus for my first sound installation was an interest in working with a public at large. Inserting works into their daily domain in such a way that people could find them in their own time and on their own terms…led by their curiosity into listening.”7 I too wanted to seek the uninitiated, and sought to cause a temporary change in their perception of sound and place through sound installation.

The intention of the work is that it will enter into the consciousness of passers-by, taking them out of the thoughts and behaviours that usually consume us when walking between destinations, and cause them to question what they are hearing. They may wonder what the sound is, where it is coming from, move on to examine other environmental sounds – or they may miss it entirely. My aim is that by insinuating this sound into transitional places people will begin “listening to listening,”8 focusing on how they perceive space sonically and consequently drawing attention to the environment they are moving through. As such the work can be seen as a development on Pauline Oliveros’s ideas: “Listening and hearing as separate modes of perceiving, of being attentive to sound, oscillate across levels of consciousness, [which echo] Roland Barthes’ proposal that hearing is a physiological condition, whereas listening is a psychological act.”9

A key aspect of this particular work is that it is a transient installation, moving between places much like the people it aims to affect. This idea developed out of the necessity to present an installation close to the UEA School of Music for marking purposes, when my initial preferred space was the underpass beneath the St Stephen’s roundabout in Norwich. I started experimenting with different transitional spaces, and found that I liked how it reacted differently depending on where it was installed and the sounds around it. Consequently I decided to install the work just outside of the School of Music, and provide a companion video documenting its presence in other places.

The work possesses a particular guerrilla quality inspired by the graffiti, posters, and stickers covering the walls of the St. Stephen’s underpass, in that it is quickly and easily installed, without consent, and only exists in one place temporarily. I wanted to provide a sonic equivalent in my installation, something that is easily missed or ignored but when noticed can draw your attention to the idiosyncrasies of a particular place.

Technically the work is comprised of up to five sound sources, depending on the size and design of the transitional place in which it is installed. In this instance installed outside of the UEA School of Music, I have used four Creative ZEN Stone Plus MP3 players with built-in speakers. These particular MP3 players have featured in all of the instances so far since they have a built-in speaker, and due to their compact size and weight can easily be attached to most surfaces with Blu-Tack. If the installation were to be installed in larger, more open spaces, then louder speakers may have to be implemented instead. The sound sources are placed not so that they are hidden, but that they do not call attention to themselves – much like the sound played through them.

image

Underpass beneath St. Stephen’s roundabout, Norwich.

The sound in question is my own recording of a tibetan singing bowl, layered, reversed, and faded into copies of itself to create a shimmering drone. Each sound source plays the same file at the same volume simultaneously but from different start-points, creating a shifting sensation as the tones clash and resolve. I wanted to make sure that the sound was synthetic, almost ethereal or otherworldly, so that it could be distinguished as something not found in the natural world 10; I did not want to trick passers-by into listening by installing something like the sound of a wasp flying by their ear. Similarly I did not want to demand their attention by playing loud noises with a strong attack, but rather subtly introduce a new sound into the vocabulary of the place in such a way that many of the people travelling through might miss it. This was another one of the reasons why I edited the singing bowl recordings, removing the strike of the mallet against the bowl.

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Creative ZEN Stone Plus MP3 players installed in pedestrian path, Barnet.

The sound files themselves are relatively short at one minute twenty-two seconds, due to the fact that they are installed in transitional places and hence experienced only briefly. I strayed away from the idea of building up to a regular sonic event like Neuhaus’ Time Pieces 11 because I wanted each person to have an equal chance of experiencing the piece, even if they might not consciously become aware of its presence. That is not to say I am rejecting the individual’s experience over the artist’s ideal; each person’s experience will be a different one, based on when they pass by the sound sources and their placement in relation to their ears, extraneous sounds, what their attention is focused on, and so forth.

The use of a singing bowl to call attention to perception was a very deliberate one for a number of reasons. First of all, it fit the sonic criteria I was looking for: a relatively high frequency so as to maximise directionality and give passers-by a chance to locate the sound; a shimmering, modulating quality; and a long decay to aid in the creation of a drone, as explained above. But perhaps more important than this is the symbolism of singing bowls and their use in the Eastern world. In Japan and Vietnam, singing bowls “mark the passage of time or signal a change in activity,”12 with some believing that the sound of singing bowls “tunes one in to the universal sound within and without.”13 As such I feel it is a fitting sound to call for a change in perceptual state, to focus on sound.

Word count: 1515 including footnotes.

1 Pauline Oliveros, in an interview with the author, 2001. Quoted in Brandon LaBelle, Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006), 159.

2 Andrew Schroeder, The Dialog of Space and Place within Transitional Environments (University of Minnesota), http://www.andrewschroeder.net/about/space-and-place/ (accessed 21 November 2013).

3 Christoph Cox, “From Music to Sound: Being as Time in the Sonic Arts,” Sonambiente Berlin 2006: Klang Kunst Sound Art, ed. Helga de la Motte-Haber, Matthias Osterwold, Georg Weckwerth (Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 2006), 214-23.

4 Brandon LaBelle, Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006), 154.

5 Ibid., 165.

6 Ibid. 155.

7 Max Neuhaus, Max Neuhaus: inscription, sound works vol.1, ed. Gregory des Jardins (Ostfildern, Germany: Cantz Verlag, 1994), 82. Quoted in LaBelle, Background Noise, 154.

8 Pauline Oliveros, in an interview with the author, 2001. Quoted in LaBelle, Background Noise, 158.

9 Roland Barthes, “Listening,” in Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1991), 245. Quoted in LaBelle, Background Noise, 158.

10 Though I wanted to separate the installation’s sound from that of the natural environment, I found in some places that it merged somewhat with the sounds of the manmade environment around it. I do not think that this causes harm to the installation or its purpose; rather, I believe it strengthens it, calling further attention to architecture and the imprint of man and machine in place. In these instances I draw similarities to the work of Max Neuhaus, particularly Times Square, in which the sound becomes intertwined with the environment around it, “turning environments into instruments…[creating] audible commentary on how public space is conceived.”*

* LaBelle, Background Noise, 160.

11 Christoph Cox, “Installing Duration: Time in the Sound Works of Max Neuhaus,” Max Neuhaus, ed. Lynn Cooke (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 126.

12 Unknown, Singing Bowl, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singing_bowl (accessed 19 November 2013).

13 Unknown, About Tibetan Singing Bowls, http://www.bodhisattva.com/about.htm (accessed 19 November 2013).

 

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland.  “Listening.”  In Responsibility of Forms.  Trans. Howard, Richard.  Berkley, CA: University of California Press.  1991.

Cox, Christoph.  “From Music to Sound: Being as Time in the Sonic Arts.”  In Sonambiente Berlin 2006: Klang Kunst Sound Art.  Ed. De la Motte-Haber, Helga.  Osterwold, Matthias.  Weckwerth, Georg. Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag.  2006.

Cox, Christoph.  “Installing Duration: Time in the Sound Works of Max Neuhaus.”  In Max Neuhaus.  Ed. Cooke, Lynn.  New Haven: Yale University Press.  2009.

LaBelle, Brandon.  Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art.  New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.  2006.

Neuhaus, Max.  Max Neuhaus: inscription, sound works vol.1.  Ed. Des Jardins, Gregory.  Ostfildern, Germany: Cantz Verlag.  1994.

Oliveros Pauline.  In an interview with the author.  2001.  Quoted in LaBelle Brandon.  Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art.  New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.  2006.

Schroeder, Andrew.  The Dialog of Space and Place within Transitional Environments.  University of Minnesota.  http://www.andrewschroeder.net/about/space-and-place/.  Accessed 21 November 2013.

Unknown.  About Tibetan Singing Bowls.  http://www.bodhisattva.com/about.htm.  Accessed 19 November 2013.

Unknown.  Singing Bowl.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singing_bowl.  Accessed 19 November 2013.

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